The phrase ‘sitting is the new smoking’ has become increasingly popular in the health industry and media headlines to draw our attention towards the potential hazards that may follow to excessive sitting. It is hard to imagine that our health is being compromised by just going to work. I wanted to investigate the research on sitting a bit further to see how it actually impacts our health, if at all. Could the act of sitting at a desk for eight hours a day harmful to your wellness? Does sitting do just as much damage to your body as smoking?
The idea that sitting may be damaging is not new. As a matter of fact, a seventeenth-century occupational physician by the name of Ramazzini suggested that workers that sat longer than others experienced more health adversities. A study conducted in 1960 found that workers in jobs that required more sitting, such as school bus drivers and mail sorters, had a higher risk of cardiovascular disease than workers that could stand and walk freely (Dunstan, Howard, Healy, & Owen, 2012).
It is not easy to avoid sitting at a desk for eight hours if that is required by your employer. Sitting can be harmful, but more so when combined with an overall sedentary lifestyle. Stamatakis and colleagues (2019) compared both sitting and physical activity to the risk of overall mortality and cardiovascular disease. The results suggested that sitting for eight or more hours a day increased the risk of health complications; however, the risk was decreased when physical activity throughout the week increased (Stamatakis et al., 2019). For example, someone’s risk for developing cardiovascular disease was three times greater when they did not participate in any exercise outside of work compared to someone who spent over six hours a week exercising.
Sitting for extended periods of time causes the blood flow in our body to become sluggish, our oxygen levels to become depleted, and our cells to become less responsive to insulin. Poor circulation can lead to brain fog, varicose veins, swollen feet, and a build-up of fatty acids (Berkowitz and Clark, 2014). Sitting and other means of sedentary behavior have also been linked to low-grade inflammation (Cabanas-Sanchez et al., 2018). These physiological responses to sitting increase the risk for type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and other metabolic disorders(Dunstan et al., 2012).
Is sitting the new smoking? There is a great deal of evidence that proves that sitting does impose a serious threat to our longevity and mortality. Although I don’t agree that sitting and smoking can be compared to each other, it does highlight how critical sedentary behaviors can be on our health. Media headlines about sitting have increased twelve-fold within the past seven years. The fact that smoking has a higher risk of overall mortality than sitting cannot be ignored (Vallance et al., 2018). However, it is clear that physical inactivity does pose a threat to the rise in preventable health conditions.
Berkowitz, B. & Clark, P. (2014). The health hazards of sitting. The Washington Post. http://apps.washingtonpost.com/g/page/national/the-health-hazards-of-sitting/750/
Cabanas-Sánchez, V., Guallar-Castillón, P., Higueras-Fresnillo, S., García-Esquinas, E., Rodríguez-Artalejo, F., & Martinez-Gomez, D. (2018). Physical Activity, Sitting Time, and Mortality From Inflammatory Diseases in Older Adults. Frontiers in physiology, 9, 898. doi:10.3389/fphys.2018.00898
Dunstan, D. W., Howard, B., Healy, G. N., & Owen, N. (2012). Too much sitting - A health hazard. Diabetes Research and Clinical Practice. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.diabres.2012.05.020
Stamatakis, E., Gale, J., Bauman, A., Ekelund, U., Hamer, M., & Ding, D. (2019). Sitting Time, Physical Activity, and Risk of Mortality in Adults. Journal of the American College of Cardiology. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jacc.2019.02.031
Vallance, J. K., Gardiner, P. A., Lynch, B. M., D'Silva, A., Boyle, T., Taylor, L. M., … Owen, N. (2018). Evaluating the Evidence on Sitting, Smoking, and Health: Is Sitting Really the New Smoking?. American journal of public health, 108(11), 1478–1482. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2018.304649